America’s best-known traditional cowboy singer. Ohrlin was born in Minneapolis,
Minnesota. His father, Burt, was a Swedish immigrant who moved to the Twin Cities to
work as a house painter. His mother, Alma, was the daughter of Norwegian immigrants.
Both parents knew Scandinavian and American songs, and they were their son’s earliest
source of material. His mother’s family, particularly an aunt, Irene Eraker, provided him
with several ballads, while his father’s sister, Anna Molinder, taught him basic guitar
techniques. Music was not Ohrlin’s only interest; from early childhood, he wanted to be a
rider, and he frequented stables and stockyards to be near horses. In 1940 the family
moved to California, and two years later Ohrlin left home to work as a buckaroo in
Nevada. In 1943 he started on the rodeo circuit, continuing until the early 1960s, despite
suffering a broken back.
During World War II, Ohrlin spent time in Japan where he started learning flamenco
guitar from a chicano soldier pal. To this day (1995), he performs a large number of
Spanish songs because, he says, the cowboys seem to like them. Despite his growing
musical accomplishments, it was the early 1960s before Ohrlin came to the attention of
non-cowboy audiences. Then, in 1963, he met folklorist Archie Green, who soon
introduced him to the folk-revival audience. Thereafter, Ohrlin appeared at numerous
folk festivals and on a large number of commercial recordings. In 1973 he produced The
Hell-Bound Train: A Cowboy Songbook, a collection of 100 of his favorite songs with
extensive commentary by Ohrlin. While the book is an excellent compilation, it by no
means covers the gamut of the author’s repertoire, which includes traditional ballads,
bawdy pieces, GI folksongs, hobo ditties, jukebox hits, and items from song folios and
In 1954 Ohrlin moved to the Ozarks, establishing his Rafter O Ranch near Mountain
View, Arkansas, a choice dictated largely by economics. Cheap land, low taxes, and free
range all played a part in his decision. Ohrlin still performs at folk festivals, concerts, and
at the nearby Ozark Folk Center. In addition to singing, he has become well known as a
performer of cowboy poetry.
Musical Holdouts. 1978. Phoenix films. (In one section of this film, Ohrlin discusses the changing
nature of the life of a traditional cowboy.)
Ohrlin, Glenn. Cowboy Songs. Philo Records.
——. Wild Buckaroo. Rounder Records.